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Goose, Gander and Gosling

Posted on June 3, 2016


by Karin Murray-Bergquist

It’s incredible how much FortWhyte changes from day to day at this season.

The pond has been active, of course. There is always something diving, splashing, or flapping, and I don’t only mean the children. Lately however the serenity of wetland life has been disturbed in an altogether sweeter way -- by the newly-hatched goslings on their small islet. Although some of this year’s young are already adolescents, the initial yellow fuzz softening to brown feathers, the sight of goslings only a few days old is still common, with all of the alert protectiveness on the part of the goose and gander that that implies. If it is difficult to appreciate these birds sometimes, getting to know them as distinct characters makes it easier.

Geese have always seemed inherently silly animals. Their use in popular language has not helped their case -- ‘silly goose,’ for example, or ‘don’t be a goose,’ to get someone to stop squawking and set their feet back on the ground. A ‘wild goose chase’ implies foolish behaviour on the part of its participants, and being ‘loose as a goose’ refers to inebriation, though the appeal in the expression may have more to do with rhyme than reason.

Geese are too common to achieve the nobility and mystique of, for instance, swans; by living with them, we have come to know their habits all too well, including inconsiderate honking at all hours, gluttonous eating habits, and leaving a mess. They are not desirable as roommates.

Yet distance makes for greater warmth between such similar species, and the sight of a v-formation in the air, high above the still-barren fields of late winter, is a sight to please even the most fervent goose-hater. Beyond eve the reminder that spring is here, or at least on the way, their distant cacophony and graceful flight are beautiful in themselves. Perhaps the behaviour strikes a familiar chord. Anyone whose family has taken a long road trip knows what it is like to watch the miles spread out ahead, to stave off fatigue, boredom, and impatience with a chorus of song or chatter. And the geese have something that we envy: they have flight.

Once they land, they become once more the nuisance to human sensibilities, the obnoxious neighbours who never learned enough consideration to use a toilet. At this season, their tempers are strained, and their behaviour even worse than usual. Like any fond parents, in any species which embraces the parental role, they are constantly on the lookout for their offspring’s well-being, and fractious in their relationship to just about anything else. Both goose and gander will care for their young, and both will give a warning hiss to anyone coming too near.

I have been trained, now, in how to fend off a goose attack, and have given every visiting group fair warning on the tempers and capabilities of nesting geese. ‘Geese are jerks,’ one colleague warned me bluntly. To other geese, and to us, they are suspicious and territorial; if they are not outright hostile, they are overly familiar, demanding food of every passing human. Such a proximity, though inadvisable for the goose, is also a chance to enjoy the delicate shape and glossy surface of the animals’ necks, their sharply-defined white chin-straps. These are stunning birds; it is only through over-familiarity that they have dropped in our esteem.

And unlike many other baby birds, goslings are cute. They wobble and flap behind their parents, heedless of danger but curious about their surroundings. One privilege of working at FortWhyte is getting to know individual animals, and watching them raise their young. This past week, the geese that haunt the Interpretive Centre deck, whose single egg has taken its time in hatching, finally saw their efforts rewarded.

Although the gosling itself has so far been kept mostly hidden, it has at least emerged and will, we all hope, soon be stumbling around with its stubby wings flapping!

As FortWhyte Alive's seasonal interpreter, Karin will share her observations and musings on the trail this summer.